London (Ontario, Canada) Thursday, April 5, 2007
Hitler's visit still
By Greg van Moorsel
Adolf Hitler and Nazi brass tour Vimy in this 1940
propaganda photo, which The Free Press ran in
see the June 10, 1940 issue of Facts in Review, a
newsletter distributed in the United States by the German
Library of Information in New York
RETRIEVED from history's dustbin, it's still a
disturbing image all these 67 years later. There, smiling
in the grainy photograph, is Adolf Hitler -- a
phalanx of jack-booted Nazis at his side -- touring
Canada's dramatic First World War memorial at Vimy
Why one of history's monsters was even there, at a
site built to honour 60,000 Canadian war dead, is one
Why the arresting June 1940 photograph was roundly
published in Germany, yet shielded from most Canadians,
How the image finally found its way into The London
Free Press, three years after the Second World War,
is another strand to the story of wartime propaganda and
The tie-in is Ron Laidlaw, then a young Free
Press photographer, who scooped up the Hitler shot in a
stack of photographs he found as the Allies chased
Hitler's armies out of France.
Laidlaw, now 87, can't recall exactly where he got
those photographs. He thinks it was while the unit he was
following as an RCAF war photographer overran a German
airfield between Paris and Brussels in 1944.
His real quarry that day, stumbling upon the airfield
darkroom, was a prized Leica camera -- "a beauty," he
recalls. But as he reached for it, he noticed "peanut
bombs," nasty little explosives the fleeing Germans had
"You touch one of those things, you lose a toe," he
Instead, Laidlaw grabbed the cache of photographs
without knowing what images it held.
Bigger stuff on his mind, he wasn't even offended when
he finally saw the Vimy shot of Hitler and his
leather-coated sidekicks -- "henchmen," The Free Press
caption later read.
"I didn't make any judgments. I was more interested in
staying alive," he notes.
"I probably didn't even know that was a war cemetery,"
Laidlaw says of the Vimy monument to Canada's First World
War dead, including the 5,600 who fell at Vimy.
"And Hitler, well, he was just a guy we wanted to
So, why was Hitler at Vimy? Why all the intrigue about
the photograph of the notorious visitor?
Those questions won't be on the minds of the many
Canadians Vimy-bound for Monday's 90th anniversary of
that battle to salute those who fell fighting an earlier
generation of Germans.
Canada's largest war monument -- two white limestone
pillars towering 69 metres, or 10 storeys, over a hill in
France -- has had a big facelift for the occasion.
But back in June 1940, only four years after King
Edward VIII dedicated it, the site's fate was in
Germans were conquering France and the British had
retreated across the English Channel when a propaganda
skirmish broke out over the memorial.
Even Mackenzie King, Canada's wartime prime
minister, (right) was drawn into the fray.
Stoking public anger at home, Canadian newspapers
reported the Germans had destroyed the monument.
But while the Germans went after many historic French
sites, scrapping statues and rubbing out reminders of
past defeats, Vimy was spared.
Hitler was even said to have admired the big Canadian
landmark, imposing but with an elegant triumphal
To prove the allegations of destruction false, Hitler
and his brass toured Vimy and the Nazi propaganda mill
kicked in, cranking out their photographs.
One of the photographs, published in Germany, seethed
anger in its caption, slamming the "English Minister of
Lies" for claiming "the 'German barbarians' " had
destroyed the site.
"Our photograph," it continued, "is one of the most
striking picture documents for the shameless mendacity of
the English propaganda. Meanwhile, Canadian Prime
Minister Mackenzie King has repudiated the English
Hitler never fought at Vimy, but served in the area as
a German infantryman during the First World War. He was
said to have a soft spot for the soldiers of the Great
What a villain he would become -- the world would soon
learn about his Nazi death camps and other
Still, destroying war memorials was something of a
taboo, says Jonathan Vance, a war historian at the
University of Western Ontario, whose grandfather fought
"I think there were kind of tacit orders that none of
this stuff was to be touched," he says. "I think (Hitler)
kind of believed, in some kind of perverse way, that
whatever else the Nazis were doing, they shouldn't be
destroying cemeteries and war monuments."
At the height of the Vimy war of words, Vance says,
the British flew over the area to make sure the monument
In the end, the only damage done was the German
capture of the civilian groundskeeper.
As for Laidlaw -- the news photographer-turned RCAF
shutterbug who found the arresting image -- danger,
thrills, even minor celebrity, followed him to war's
A 1944 Free Press story, headlined "Ex-Free Press
photographer among first to enter Paris," told how
Laidlaw sat "on the bonnet" of a car in an armed escort,
photographing the Allies liberating Paris as hold-out
German snipers fired.
Back home after the war, the award-winning
photographer made a leap of faith by jumping to a career
in television, then still in its infancy. He went on to
become news director at CFPL-TV in London.
Still in London, Laidlaw says he's rediscovering his
"first love" -- photography. Only now, "it's just a
THE photo of Adolf Hitler's visit to the Vimy Ridge
memorial was published on the first page of the June 10,
1940 issue of Facts in Review, a newsletter
distributed in the United States by the German Library of
Information in New York. The accompanying story: